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Complete Node.js Guide for Beginners (XXL Tutorial)

This Node.js tutorial is aimed at developers who want to program with Node.js but know little or nothing about it yet – i.e. complete beginners in this field.


Node.js is becoming more and more popular: Especially when it comes to creating Rest APIs, Node is way out in front. 😋

This Node.js tutorial is very practical and with some examples. Nevertheless, I will briefly discuss the functionality, application and installation at the beginning. From chapter 3 on we will start with the practical part.

In this tutorial you will learn the following:

  1. What is Node.js?
  2. Install Node.js
  3. The CLI as a tool for Node.js
  4. Node.js Packages (Modules)
  5. Create first Node.js App
    1. Create project folder
    2. Write & execute program code
    3. Get to know package.json
  6. Improve Node.js workflow - with Nodemon
  7. Environment variables in Node.js
  8. Node.js Webserver with Express
    1. Set up Express web server
    2. Excursus: HTTP Request Methods
    3. Process parameters
  9. Reading files with Node.js
  10. Deploy (publish) Node.js app
  11. Questions still open? - Node.js FAQ
  12. More Tutorials

1. What is Node.js?

With Node.js, the JavaScript scripting language has also made its way into server-side programming. Before Node.js, JavaScript was mainly only responsible for the frontend and the interaction with the visitor.

With Node.js, however, it is now possible to develop everything from small CLI (command line) tools to complex programs and standalone HTTP servers. Exactly this universal applicability makes Node.js so ingenious for me personally – and also for many other developers!

And what do I need Node.js for now?

When a website is called up, the JavaScript code is executed at the visitor, i.e. client-side. With Node.js, on the other hand, JavaScript is executed on the requested server, i.e. server-side. This is the most obvious difference and sounds unspectacular at first.

However, this fact changes most of the uses of JavaScript. In the browser, JavaScript is mainly responsible for manipulating the DOM. In Node.js, this task falls away and it is available for returning data. Thereby Node.js can also connect to a database (e.g. MySQL or MongoDB).

So Node.js acts as a kind of web server. We will pick up on this point and write our own web server with Node.js later in this tutorial.

All clear?

If you are now wondering if you really need and want to be able to use Node.js, you should read through the most frequently asked questions below and decide if Node.js is the right technology for you.

Another important reason for the success are the on-board tools that come with Node.js. From the ground up, Node.js already has many features and modules that are easy to use. And to make it even more perfect, there is the package manager – also called npm (Node Package Manager). You can find more information about it later in the Node.js Packages section. Anyway, it makes it very easy to add new features, extensions from other developers and the Node.js community.

Of course, this sounds promising at first, but can you already imagine something concrete? Probably not. At least it wouldn’t be very easy for me to read something like that about a topic I don’t know. That’s why it’s best to read this section again at the end of this post and I assure you, you’ll know what I’m talking about! 😉

2. Install Node.js

Before we can start with the actual programming, we first have to install Node.js on our computer. To do this, select the operating system on which you want to develop.

2.1 Install Node.js on Windows

On Windows, you can simply download the installer and follow the installation instructions. It is best to download the LTS (Long-term support) version, as this is already established and has fewer bugs than the latest version.

Windows Installer

2.2 Install Node.js on the Mac

On the Mac, just like on Windows, you can download the official installer and follow the installation instructions. Again, it is best to download the LTS (Long-term support) version, as this is already established and has fewer bugs than the latest version.

Mac Installer

2.3 Install Node.js on Linux

Depending on the Linux distribution you choose the appropriate installation command.

Linux Installer

3. The CLI as a tool for Node.js

CLI stands for Command-Line Interface and means command line. On the Mac you can use the pre-installed program “Terminal” and on Windows the command prompt (cmd.exe).

cmd.exe from windows
The CLI can be used to launch Node.js applications, install modules, and view error messages and log output.

Using the node command, we can now execute any JavaScript commands. In the further course of this article you now know what you can understand by the CLI.

4. Node.js Packages (Modules)

The crown jewels of Node.js are its packages. At the beginning I already mentioned that Node.js has a package manager. The abbreviation and the command for the CLI is npm (Node Package Manager).

NPM is a gigantic network of development tools that you can download for free for your application. If you work with Node.js, you will always use modules from other developers.

This offers many advantages:

  • Time saving, because you don’t have to program everything yourself
  • Security vulnerabilities are (usually) closed promptly and you can update such a dependency with a command
  • Standardization ensures easier handling between multiple developers
  • Good documentation on existing interfaces

4.1 Package installation

In this example we download the module express. This works with the following command:

npm install express
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You can also install modules globally, which means that it applies to your entire computer and is not only available in one project. To do this, simply append the -g parameter.

npm install -g express
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Some modules are also only required for development and are later superfluous in productive use. If you use the --save-dev parameter, these are created as dev dependencies – i.e. only required for development.

npm install --save-dev dotenv
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When you install a module, a corresponding entry is created in the package.json and the folder node_modules is created automatically. This contains all installed modules and can be ignored by you for now.

Tip: If you work with git, for example, you can exclude the node_modules folder in your .gitignore. The folder can be recreated using the npm install command when you load your project on a different device.

4.2 Integration in source code

We can include a module in the code with the require() function:

const express = require('express');
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4.3 Update packages

To take advantage of the already mentioned regular (security) updates you can always keep your packages up to date. You can simply use this command:

npm update
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5. Create first Node.js App

5.1 Create project folder

The time has come, we are finally starting to program. To create a Node.js project, we simply create a normal folder in any directory. In it we create an index.js, which is our start file.

Created folder with the startup file index.js

Now we need to say in this folder that we want to make it a Node.js app, we do that via this command in the CLI:

npm init
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We will be asked for several parameters like package name, version and description. You can fill in these fields or like me just leave them on default settings. We can always change these settings later in the package.json.

Console output after the npm init command

5.2 Write & execute program code

Now we can write the first JavaScript code in our index.js. Of course we can’t do without it and have to output “Hello World”.

// index.js
console.log('Hello World');
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The first code is written and we want to start our program. We do that with this command:

node index.js
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We get the following result:

"Hello World" edition of our first Node.js app

Granted, at the beginning of the Node.js tutorial, this all sounded much cooler. But don’t worry, there’s more. 🙂

You can e.g. try JavaScript functions in this file to e.g. simply add two numbers and output them on the console. Just play around with it for 10 minutes and then read on.

5.3 Get to know package.json

A package.json file has now been created in our folder. In this file all information about our application, such as the author, version and most importantly, about all installed dependencies (packages) are stored in JSON.

// package.json
{
  "name": "app",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "",
  "main": "index.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
  },
  "author": "",
  "license": "ISC"
}
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If you install packages, they will also appear in this list. Under dependencies you will find all “normal” dependencies and under devDependencies you will find all packages that were installed with the parameter --save-dev. Reminder: These are only necessary for development and are no longer installed in production use.

{
   "name":"app",
   "version":"1.0.0",
   "description":"",
   "main":"index.js",
   "scripts":{
      "test":"echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
   },
   "author":"",
   "license":"ISC",
   "dependencies":{
      "express":"^4.17.1"
   },
   "devDependencies":{
      "dotenv":"^16.0.0"
   }
}
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Under scripts you can create your own scripts, e.g. to execute test routines automatically or to automate other tasks. If you want to learn more about this, have a look at this tutorial.

6. Improve Node.js workflow – with Nodemon

It’s really annoying when we have to manually restart our Node.js app after every small change to the code, right? Right, that’s why there is a module called nodemon which we install globally. This module detects file changes and restarts the Node.js app within milliseconds. This speeds up our workflow tremendously.

npm install -g nodemon
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After the installation we start Nodemon via this command and directly our app is started and automatically restarted in case of changes.

nodemon index.js
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Now when you save your files inside the project folder, the Node.js app will automatically restart.

Improved workflow – thanks to Nodemon

7. Environment variables in Node.js

I don’t want to deprive you of one very central function: Environment variables

They are quite an important thing when it comes to variable properties like credentials, configuration email addresses or file paths. Here is an example:

You have a local database running on your local PC with the user test and the password 123456 (hopefully not 🙂 ). If you want to connect to it with your Node.js application, you would have to include these credentials statically in your source code. But on your production system you have completely different credentials. So no connection can be established. And using the same credentials is not an option, because it is insecure, sometimes not feasible and also in cases like changing file paths not feasible at all. And that’s why we use environment variables.

You provide a kind of project global variable in which we can store the required data. Our application then fetches this data automatically. On our live system we can then work with completely different values without having to adapt our source code.

For the development we use the package dotenv (npm install dotenv --save-dev) and create the file .env in our main directory and write there one variable with value per line.

DATABASE_HOST=localhost
DATABASE_USER=test
DATABASE_NAME=testDB
DATABASE_PASSWORD=123456
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To access it in our Node.js app, we need the line highlighted in red. Via process.env.VARIABLE we can then retrieve the corresponding value.

// index.js
require("dotenv").config();
console.log("Host: " + process.env.DATABASE_HOST);          // Host: localhost
console.log("Database: " + process.env.DATABASE_NAME);      // Database: testDB
console.log("Username: " + process.env.DATABASE_USER);      // Username: test
console.log("Password: " + process.env.DATABASE_PASSWORD);  // Password: 123456
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Attention: The .env file should not be uploaded to your git repository and should not be made public, because it may contain sensitive access data! Just add the file to your .gitignore.

When our application is running on a production system, the .env file is no longer needed. The environment variables are then set in other places – this varies depending on the hosting.

In my Plesk hosting this view looks like this:

Node.js environment variables in Plesk

8. Node.js Webserver with Express

8.1 Set up Express web server

We can now write and execute functions and output texts from the console. However, the user of our application has nothing of this, since he can only access it via the browser.

So now we set up a web server and deliver content to the user in the browser. Exactly the same thing happens when a website is called up.

To do this, we install the express module using the following command, if not already done in step 4:

npm install express
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And we customize our index.js as follows:

// index.js
const express = require('express');
const app = express();
const PORT = process.env.PORT || 3000;
app.get('/', (request, response) => {
  response.send('Our first Node.js webserver');
});
app.listen(PORT, () => console.log(`Server running on port ${PORT}`));
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To help you understand everything, here’s a line-by-line explanation:

Line Description
Line 3 Embedding the express module.
Line 4 Initialization of the express module in the variable app.
Line 5 Create constant PORT and initialize with value from environment variable. If the entry is empty or does not exist, 3000 is used.
Line 7 We intercept the page call from / our server to perform an action. Such a call is called a route.
Line 8 We send back the text “Our first Node.js webserver” as a response to the requester.
Line 10 We start our web server on port PORT and print a message in the console.

If we now request our computer on port 3000 from the browser, we get this result:

Browser view when calling our Node.js web server application

Simple, right? That’s why Node.js is so awesome. You need just seven lines of code for your own web server.

8.2 Excursus: HTTP Request Methods

Let’s take a break from coding for a moment, we need a small theory block for HTTP request methods.

A request from a client (e.g. browser) to a server is called a request. The response from the server to the client is called Response. We use the variables req and res in front of it in the code. When you call a website, a GET request is executed in the background. But there are many more types, which are especially important for the development of Rest APIs. Here are the most important ones in short form:

  • GET: Requests resources from the server
  • POST: Sends data (e.g. in the request body) with which the server is to create a new resource.
  • PUT: Also sends data to the server with which it should update an existing resource
  • DELETE: Deletes a resource from the server Resources can be very different things: a temporary object, an entry from a database or a simple file. It depends on your application.

A list of all available HTTP request methods can be found here. If you want to know more about HTTP request methods, I can recommend this article.

In this tutorial we will only use the GET method. You can find more tutorials at the end of this post.

8.3 Process parameters

Now, if we adjust our route a little bit, we can return data that has already been passed:

// index.js
const express = require('express');
const app = express();
const PORT = process.env.PORT || 3000;
app.get('/:yourName', (req, res) => {
  res.send('Your name: ' + req.params.yourName);
});
app.listen(PORT, () => console.log(`Server running on port ${PORT}`));
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Here :yourName stands for a variable string (note the colon!) that we can pass in our URL and with req.params.yourName we can read it and send the name back to the user.

If we now call http://localhost:3000/test, we get the string with the passed name as response.

Node.js browser response with parameters

With it you can already read and send data and that with really little code.

This approach is the basis for creating a Rest API. Meanwhile, you should also always test your application directly for anomalies and write test cases.

A post on creating Rest APIs with Node.js is already in the works. Rest APIs are the main use of Node.js and therefore so essential! If you don’t want to miss this, feel free to subscribe to our newsletter!

9. Reading files with Node.js

We now want to use our Node.js server to send simple static HTML files to the browser. To do this, we first create an HTML file with our website in the public folder.

<!-- public/example-page.html -->
<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang="en">
  <head>
    <meta charset="UTF-8" />
    <meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="IE=edge" />
    <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0" />
    <title>Node.js website</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    <h1>Our static Node.js HTML website!</h1>
  </body>
</html>
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Important: In the public folder you should only put files that are also “intended for the public”. This convention is important to avoid sharing private/sensitive code.

We now create a GET route for the path /html-example. There we use on our res variable the function sendFile() to pass a path where our file is located. As second parameter we can specify an array with further options. There we pass the property root with the constant __dirname. This contains the current path where the JS file is located.

Around it we have a try-catch block in case the file cannot be read.

// index.js
const express = require("express");
const app = express();
const PORT = process.env.PORT || 3000;
app.get("/html-example", (req, res) => {
  try {
    res.sendFile("public/example-page.html", { root: __dirname });
  } catch (err) {
    console.log(err);
  }
});
app.listen(PORT, () => console.log(`Server running on port ${PORT}`));
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If we now call http://localhost:3000/html-example, our static HTML page appears.

Static HTML file requested with Node.js

Deploy all files statically with Node.js

If we want Node.js to act only as a web server and just serve all the files that are in the public folder, we can implement this with a simple line:

// index.js
const express = require("express");
const app = express();
const PORT = process.env.PORT || 3000;
app.use(express.static("public"));
app.listen(PORT, () => console.log(`Server running on port ${PORT}`));
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I have created another-page.html and included a CSS file. All files can now be easily accessed by name: http://localhost:3000/another-page.html

HTML page from public folder delivered by Node.js

10. Deploy (publish) Node.js app

Many Node.js tutorials forget to show how to eventually deploy (publish) a Node.js app. Most of the time they just stop after the basics.

You can of course run your app locally, but it doesn’t make sense if you want to share an app with others.

A free way to host Node.js apps is Heroku. You can simply follow this guide. Of course, the free model at Heroku doesn’t have all the features, e.g. you can’t use your own domain.

Another possibility to deploy a Node.js app is the own server with Plesk as administration software. Such servers are already available for less than 10 Euros per month and are perfectly suitable for development, testing and also for productive use! To deploy Node.js apps with Plesk you can find a tutorial here.

Questions still open? – Node.js FAQ

When do I use Node.js?
Node.js is primarily used for “normal” dynamic websites and backend APIs (Rest APIs). In addition, Node.js is often used for applications that need to process data in real time (e.g. chats).

Is Node.js a programming language?
Definitely no. Node.js combines the JavaScript scripting language and a networking component. Because Node.js was developed on the Google V8 JavaScript engine, Node.js masters networking basics such as the HTTP, DNS, and TCP protocols.

Is it easy to learn Node.js?
Since Node.js is not a framework or a programming language, one must rather ask whether it is easy to learn JavaScript. Yet surveys have shown that JavaScript is one of the easiest scripting languages to learn.

What is middleware?
A middleware is a partial program, i.e. a function that is executed between two components. For example, when the user calls /settings, the actual program code should only be executed when the user is logged in. To do this, you write a middleware function and call this function before it. You do this so that you can use the same code (checking the login) multiple times, but only have to write it once.

How and where can I host a Node.js app?
You can host Node.js apps for free at Heroku. However, if you have your own server, you can host your own Node.js app in Plesk for free, for which I have created a complete guide here.

What does the package.json do?
The package.json contains information about the name, the author, etc. for Node.js apps. Most important here are the dependencies. This is a list of modules (dependencies) that your app uses. Also, under scripts you can define commands to run or test your app.

What does the package-lock.json do?
A dependency tree is stored in the package-lock.json – i.e. information about all installed packages. This ensures that your app is 100% reproducible on another system and that all package versions work together.

What does the node_modules folder do?
The node_modules folder contains all modules that are included in your Node.js. Among other things, it contains standard modules, but also all modules that you have installed additionally and are listed in the package.json under scripts. You don’t need to push the node_modules folder to your Git repository or to live hosting, because the npm install command will re-download all modules to the folder.

More Tutorials

Pooh! Quite a lot of information at once, isn’t it? Nevertheless, I hope you got a good impression of what’s possible with Node.js and that I made you curious for more.

If you have any unanswered questions, feel free to post them in the comments! 🙂

If you want to start with the development of Rest APIs I can already recommend this tutorial.


➡️ On my blog you can find many more tutorials and articles about Node.js and much more exciting IT topics!

Thanks for reading! ❤️

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